Seville, Andalucia: The FIrst Night

Somehow Memorial Day passed in the US without any ripple in the rest of the world. Spain. After living in Portugal for three weeks we are in Spain. The difference is immediate. Seville. The land of the mantilla, the bull fight and evidently Catholicism. This is where the Inquisition started and today, nuns walking the streets in a much more evident way than in the devout land of Portugal, we have arrived, unawares, for the region’s most important religious holiday.  Half the people of the city of Seville seemed to be ducking into one of the churches on every other street, churches that seem to hide behind walls and blossoming on the inside, to take some special communion of the Eucharist of something unknown to me.

As we sit in the late afternoon at a table on the sidewalk at one of the innumerable cafes, drinking a beer, the breeze blowing, cool. Two nuns walk by in habits, one very small, perhaps a dwarf, the other, tall and dark skinned. I see the small one only from the back, her shoes sturdy and brown just where her skirts end. She is surging ahead, almost dancing. The tall one strides to keep up and I see the side of her face, smiling as she turns up a street towards the opening of a church enclave. She is pleased to be with her friend. Somehow, I have no idea how, it brings back the memory of two horse-drawn carts full of gypsies we saw trotting at a fast pace up the hill past the Intermarche Hipermarket in Lagos one morning as we waited for the bus. Each cart carried five or six people, all adjusting themselves getting ready for what awaited them of the day, one or two faces with expressions of irritation, everyone somehow in motion, urging the horse or tying a skirt, adjusting their position next to their brother or sister or uncle or aunt. We waited a while longer for the bus. After some time, another cart came by up the hill at full tilt with a young man tossing the reins, late for wherever the others were going.

It is 10:30 and we are in bed in our hotel and since 8 pm, marching bands have been parading through the streets in some magnificent battle of the bands in honor of something, which I presume to be associated with a saint. It is a community. We don’t have this where I come from.

Since at least 7:30, the whole city has been alive, having nothing to do with this festival.  I have discovered it is the lead up to the day of Corpus Christi, practically the biggest holiday of the year.  We have stumbled on this huge festival in Seville, totally ignorant. The city is packed. Thursday it is the holiday itself, starting with a mass in the morning at the huge Cathedral of Seville,  Tonight, there are people out on the streets everywhere. Every other taverna and restaurant, of which there seem to be thousands, is packed with people drinking wine, sangria and beer and eating tapas but mainly talking and talking and talking…and laughing. And there is music from many places. Everyone who is not sitting with people in a cafe or talking with someone they’ve run into on the streets is walking down the street or stopped leaning against a wall talking to someone on their cellphone. Sometimes someone sings somewhere.

The bell in the nearby church just tolled eleven times. The street has gone quiet. It seems everyone has just gone in to bed. There will be stragglers, odd young couples having stayed late with friends, coming back across the cobbles, talking softly.

Otherwise, there will be garbage trucks during the night, a motorcycle here and there till early morning. Tomorrow summer may come to the Andalouse. There will be more parades in the street at odd times. More displays going up in unpredictable places on the streets, dark red velvet banners hung from balconies. The streets will be crowded, cars and motorcycles driving every which way, backing up, trying to negotiate corners never meant for cars, even tiny ones. 

The Countryside of the Algarve

It’s been two weeks and a bit more since we closed the deal on the farm. We’re on the train in Evora, Portugal, waiting for it to leave the station. It will leave on time. We know that from experience now. The trains and buses run on time in Portugal. Two couples from Iowa have met each other in the station and are talking about their families at the front of the car. The flavor of home. The accents stand out for me as if the words were written in cartoon bubbles with caricatures of Americans speaking their lines.

Our two days in Evora gave us the flavor of the place, saturated with the sounds and smells of pouring thunder and lightning storms, purple jacaranda blossoms set delicately against both blue skies and grey, and an occasional orange tree still in bloom, the fragrance from just a few blossoms seeping secretly into our nostrils as we walked past, intoxicatingly sweet.

For us, it was not a place for sight-seeing. We stayed in a hostel tucked away in a courtyard near an old church, slept, ate and took walks to get acquainted with our surroundings. We found the ruins of the Roman temple in the middle of town and near it a lovely park with a view over the countryside where tourists and townspeople alike gravitated in the late afternoon during a wonderful interval of sunshine and clear air. Praca do Giraldo with its fountain, church, banks, cafes, pastry shop, and mysterious large lump of marble in the shape of some strange part of a human limb led into streets lined with luxury shops where people from the countryside come to do a little window shopping and be enticed to buy the things their small towns can’t provide. The tourists, too, help support this flow of cash into the regional hub.

One of the hosts at the hostel, Margarida, lives with her husband on a farm 30 kilometers from town. Just like back at home, it seems that farmers need to supplement their income with a job in town. She talked about the pigs, sheep, goats and horses and the grain they grow to help feed them. Yesterday the thunderstorms, evidently rare here, finally made it to her farm and “only my farm” where the all the dogs suddenly whined and barked to come into the house all at once. “Terrible!” she said. “Too much rain!” “The climate is changing!”

The conversation shifts from this pivot point to a discussion of the politics of our respective nations. I say that I am already forgetting Trump. She commiserates with my difficulty but says, “He is president because enough people voted for him. Here, we did not get the president the people would have voted for. We elect our assembly. Since some Communists got into the assembly the government had to make a coalition. The leader they selected isn’t one the people would have voted for directly. It doesn’t feel like a real democracy.”

I didn’t go into the reasons the government of the US doesn’t seem like a democracy either, but we agreed on the importance of government taking care of the most basic rights of human life—education of its young people and care for the health of all. She is clear that her country does these things well. I tell her that many Americans fear the nationalization of health care, scared that it will lead down the road to the nationalization of all services and therefore to Communism. She replies, “Maybe it’s just because I’m a European. I believe these things should be a function of the government. They are basic rights. People here believe that with me.”

Now we’re passing a small town where the oak trees of the rolling plains seem to congregate at the boundaries and a huge stork is perched on top of a palm tree next to the ruins of a stone house. Suddenly, I wonder how I could be doing this. How I can be free of jobs, home, possessions, stability, taking a train through a countryside I never thought I’d see. The first night in Evora when the rain streamed down outside our open french doors and the thunder crashed, I cried as if I were the emotion of the storm itself, streaming, exploding, subsiding again. I let it come. The second night I slept soundly until the early morning when the church bells rang five times in the dry, dark air before anything else seemed to be stirring. Margarida insists on driving us to the train station and won’t accept money for gas. We have a pastry and coffee while we wait and then climb aboard our first train of the day.

While we wait for our connecting train in Pinhal Novo, we start up a conversation with a retired couple from Wisconsin at the station cafe when we share a moment of delight watching an old man ride an electric tricycle up the marble ramp in the station, swerving playfully a bit from side to side as he went smoothly out of sight at the top.

They and another couple are also heading to Lagos. We carry our conversation to the platform where we all wait for the train, commenting on the concrete rails on the train track. Turns out the husband worked on the railroad In Colorado one summer during college, laying track. He notices these things now. After that, he was clearly a professional of some kind. We never talked about what we had done to make our livings.

He talks instead about the fifty acres of former farmland they bought when they moved out of town some years ago. It’s about 30 miles south of Madison WI.  I tell them that, coincidentally, this is not far from where I lived  out in the country in 1976, when I was starting graduate school at the Univesity of Wisconsin in Madison. They are intrigued.  We talk about how they’re trying to return their land to prairie and struggled for the first years with the brome grass the farmer had planted to counter erosion. I learned that this kind of grass creates a sterile environment where nothing nests or feeds. They burned it two years in a row and pulled it from everywhere that it mounted its invasions. Now they’re hiring someone to come in and plant a mixture of prairie remnant seeds, heavy on the milkweed to encourage the Monarch butterfly population. When they moved there they’d discovered that, to their surprise, the land around them was owned by people with similar interests. We talk about racoon, orchards, deer and sustainable agriculture until the train pulls up. Nice folks. We could know them. There are so many people we could know.

What kind of home will we have tonight in Lagos? Who will we meet? What will it look like around us in the town? Nothing is determined. A few small things are beginning to come into focus about the people and the country where we travel. What I am doing here is still one of the unknowns. To travel and then return to a familiar life is one thing. To travel in order to create a new pattern is another.

The sun was out in Pinhal Nouvo. Now from the train window the rolling hills, covered with tufts of low oaks and some taller pines, are shrouded with mist. There are no dwellings in sight anywhere. Even in this country, smaller than the state of Pennsylvania and much denser in the webs of its history, there is seemingly endless countryside.

The Mysteries of Porto and Coimbra, Portugal

The light reflected from the Ria Mondega is illuminating the front of the train station across from where I sit in the dining room of our old hotel, having a meia de liete , a roll with cheese and linguica and yogurt. It promises to be one of the first truly hot days of summer. The sky is totally blue, unlike yesterday’s cloudy start.

This is our fifth real day in Portugal, not counting the first which was spent in the blur of travel. We’d landed in Porto and made our way to the guest house where the owner and his son met us at the door. With tremendous gentility and sweetness, they had welcomed us and let us get settled. Underestimating the level of our jet lag, we’d gone to have a light dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, where, at four o’clock, a tall, gaunt waiter had met us upstairs and informed us sadly that it was too early for the fish. Exhausted, more drained than hungry, we ended up having his “friends downstairs” pack our order of pork ribs and grilled chicken as take away.

Back in a lovely room in the north end of Porto, we fell onto the beds and slept, I,  waking a few hours later to gorge on the grilled chicken and then sleeping again. It was not only the day of travel hitting us, but the three weeks of non-stop work to clear the farmhouse of practically everything. My intervening three-day trip to see my son receive his PhD two thousand miles away from our former home was now a blur, his face and the swirl of so many contradictory emotions coming to me in dreams.

Porto began to show itself to us the next day as we walked in the late morning down the hills toward the River Douro. Still cool at the beginning of May, the sun came and went from behind the clouds, the weather perfect for walking around a town full of workers tearing down and rebuilding the insides of countless buildings, old houses lining every street with faces mute and blank, concealing the noises and the depth and breadth of life inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandfathers guided their toddler and preschool grandchildren through winding streets where the sidewalks were paved with thousands upon thousands of small rounded rocks in many patterns. Here too in Coimbra, all the sidewalks are the same—each street a different variety, color and pattern of stone. Some complain that these traditional streets collect garbage  between the stones and are therefore unhygienic. However, I have not seen as much dog shit here as in Paris or even as on any one of the urban trails back home in Bellingham, WA.

As I walk, I imagine the workers on hands and knees, placing stones, chatting non-stop and laughing to the accompaniment of the clang of their tools pounding the stones into the gravel, working their way along beside the hundreds of doors that lead into the caverns of lovely, unseen homes inside.

But there is a mystery in these cities of Portugal. It is now evening, and we have rested and gone up the hill in Coimbra to the famed Botanical Gardens. Originally started by the university in 1772 as a place to experiment with rare species and teach the medical students about medicinal plants. it is now run down an neglected, much of it closed to the public. Fountains that must have been lovely oases in the lush greenery do not flow. Ponds with goldfish are filled with algae where teenagers cavort and try to feed the fish Oreo cookies, perhaps with felonious intent. Everything is overgrown with weeds. The stones of stairs and tables are broken and lying in pieces. The blue tiles on the sides of the seating areas are cracked and falling from the wall. Exotic trees are dead and brown or dying. The greenhouse is closed to the public and looks as if very few professionals visit to care for the browning plants inside. The whole place has a miasma of neglect. Strangely, there is a modern bathroom near the greenhouse and a couple of workers using leaf blowers and a pick in a desultory effort to clear away a few small weeds and sparse fallen leaves on the verges around the greenhouse, as if in an attempt to deny the wild growth spreading everywhere.

 

 

In the overgrown bamboo forest, two workers are inexplicably in the process of constructing a traditional stone pathway through the bamboo, while the poles of bamboo encroach on the ancient buildings and choke the ponds and fountains. The hammer on the stones makes the same sound I imagined the workers had made while laying the stone sidewalks of Porto. Accompanying the ringing taps of the hammer, unfamiliar birds sing in this wildness while domestic apple and pear trees, somehow pruned during the winter, are suffering from lack of water and nutrients in the soils, weeds taking firm hold on the terraces where the fruit trees seem to be making their own lonely effort to survive.

 

 

 

Internet research on the reasons for this neglect seems useless. Everywhere in the two cities we’ve visited so far the stones of monuments and beautiful old buildings are blackened and full of moss. But there is construction everywhere, private renovation of ancient buildings for apartments, new stores going in on old streets, facelifts on crumbling buildings with wrought iron balustrades. But none of it seems to be municipal work. It is clear that the economy of Portugal suffered a heavy blow in 2010 and 2011 after the crash and with the European Union’s instigation of austerity measures here and in Greece, but all indications are that the recent trends are upwards.

Fundamentals appear to be fairly strong. The Centrist Left Wing government is stable and continues to have high approval ratings. In 2012 they began pushing back against austerity and seem to be managing well. The people are working and seem fairly upbeat, despite the perceptions of some other travellers I’ve read that the Portuguese are depressed and rude.

What is the source of all the neglect? I asked the night manager at our hotel if he could tell me why so much of the Botanical Gardens are closed. He replied that the gardens are owned and run by the university as a research area and those areas that are closed to the public are typically areas where experiments are underway and should not be disturbed by tourists. I thought to myself that the research, in this case, must be into the effects of benign neglect on non-native plants. I suppose there might be a Secret Garden grant from the government for such study.

The reason for the take over by weeds and the unchecked effects of water, wind and corrosion there and in the nearby municipal gardens still eludes me. Perhaps the priorities of this socialist government are rightly placed on the care of its people rather than on its municipal parks and monuments. There are also many wild preserves in the countryside and mountains of Portugal. Maybe these (and the cafes and bars) are the refuges of the populace.

Meanwhile, still puzzled, sitting here under an umbrella at a table of the Cafe Santa Cruz in the late afternoon sun, I will enjoy the Fado of Coimbra, which seems to be more chauvinistic and folkloric than the Fado of passionate longing sung in Lisbon. I will sit and feel the sun mixed with the breezes from the Rua Mondango while bats begin to fly overhead in the open plaza around the ancient church where the light is golden for a few more moments.

This way. Come!

An eagle came to perch on the upper branches of the cottonwood tree on the farm that would soon no longer be our home. It was a magnificent bird, mature, head strong and white as white. It was watching, head turned towards the house as we sat in our bare dining room on the only chairs left in the house, looking out on our penultimate evening to the barn where the setting sun had once again turned the fir planks a soft lavender. Our purple barn. As I went out across the yard to get one of the last boxes from the barn’s huge dim interior, the huge eagle, still in the cottonwood, called its screeching call, piercing notes echoing slightly in the cooling air.

We worked steadily from early the next morning till late that next night, emptying the last things from the house, and then the last things after that, hauling them to the small storage space or the dump. Then cleaning the house. The weeds in the garden wanted to be pulled, but I passed them by as I walked to the mailbox, ignoring their cries. The rose bushes wanted to be pruned of their winter damage and those that climbed, tied again against their supports, but I told them they would have to wait for someone else to guide them.

Exhausted, working till the last minute, we drove away down the road to our friends’ lavender farm a half mile away. We pulled up the drive behind the lavender fields to the little trailer the sister had parked next to her rescue cows and hauled our last boxes and bags into the tiny space to sort during the next twenty-four hours. Our friends down the road had invited us all for dinner and, after a quick rest in our little haven, we drove there to sit in the garden and watch the evening spread over the white volcano in the distance. On the way back to the trailer after dinner, we passed our usual turn to the farm—home. It hit me unexpectedly–right in the chest. “We’re never going home to our bed.” I tried to choke back the tears but they came of their own volition, hard, breathless. “I knew this was coming,” I said. “I knew it would hit me at some point. I just didn’t know when.”

In our bed in the little trailer after an exhausted short sleep, I awoke to swirling fears, a seemingly endless expanse of dark possibilities, ruin, homelessness. I pulled the thoughts in. I made them hush themselves in the darkness and I went deeply into my heart and the heart of that huge expanse. I went deeper and deeper, wider and wider into the silence.

By the time the first birds began to chirp, the ones that see the light with some inner eye before the sun’s rays begin to penetrate, I was ready to fall into sleep. “You’ve done the work. Now rest.” I slept and dreamed and woke up to the soft sounds of cows munching grass and geese calling as they flew towards the fields beyond, I calmly joyous, ready to laugh.

And here we are on a plane flying over Manitoba, lakes and square fields patterned on a tapestry rug below. I’m thinking how I woke this morning for the second time, after getting up in the night to attend to all the last minute things I hadn’t been able to do, to the chattering cries of another eagle, unseen, somewhere to the morning side of the little trailer. A joyous rousing. A call to come and take part in this marvellous moment. So I did. And made coffee. And smiled at Walter who was turning over to sleep just a little while longer.

And as our friend drove across the border to Canada and up the highway in British Columbia on our way to the airport, two more eagles, one soon, one later, flew across our path and north, their white heads shining. “Come,” they seemed to say, “This way. Come.”

The Going Out

 

 

 

Now it’s a rush of wings, a flight towards an open door. The farm is sold, all but the signing on the dotted line. The airline tickets are bought and paid for. The objects that remain must be dealt with, each held in the hand and a decision made—in the trash, to a friend, in one of the few boxes for a small storage space, in the small suitcase. Overwhelming.

But soon everything will be done. The things designated or sold will have to be dispersed within days, the eyes looked into so many times looked into again, deeply for a moment, and the body that somehow contains that world held close and then released, the ache of longing coming to take up residence in my heart.

We will be homeless for now. All that we retain must be needed either for the journey of a few months or for the time when we will send a few boxes across a continent and an ocean to a place where we will settle again, perhaps grow some vegetables, plant some fruit trees and live for however many days we have.

Just as when we leave this body, we must discover what is important to retain, what is most precious. What we hold on to is not what we think we might possibly need someday, the insurance against some contingency, but what clings most adamantly to our essence. Over these past few weeks when things have come in a flood, wiping away every moment of space in the time of my days, it is my writing that I have yearned for from waking to sleeping. It has become an essential element of life, as necessary as the act of participation, the absorption of all that beauty in whatever combinations of elements await me in that time between the opening of my eyes from the world of dreaming and when they close at night.

One type of waiting may be over, but another more encompassing period of waiting remains. That waiting before the going out, that waiting each day for the closing of the eyes, the dreams, the deep quiet, the encompassing silence, the loss of all objects that cling, all thoughts that stick to the space of the mind, all emotions that swim in our waters. Gone. Gone. Letting it go.

A Window in Time (Part 5): Greece, The Arrival

There is a purpose to this exercise. It is an exploration of that interior space where imagination and memory meld their etheric essence. It is a practice, a meditation.

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We were gliding. It was a big boat, full of people but, although they must have rocked us gently, the waves meant nothing. Once we were away from the busy harbor with its sandstone and buff-painted buildings shining along the shores, it was only the presence of dark blue sea and islands, first in a kind of mist on the horizon and then in the bright glare of the full day’s southern sun, gliding past like mythic backdrops. Lovers leaned against each other on the benches on deck. Children ran with a parent in their wake. I was already entranced.

The four of us claimed two benches linked back to back by spreading out our meager gear, sitting near a young man carrying a guitar without a case. We sat together or walked when we felt the urge, our Greek friend chatting with other passengers from time to time, interpreting for the rest of us in mixtures of French and English. As the sun set and the night sky thick with stars emerged, the sea around us became infinite, pricks of pure white light in swaths poking through the black ink.

All the other visions of that journey are lost in that spreading well of night. When consciousness returns, we have made our way from Patras to Athens, most likely on a bus that went for hours through the night. My fresh, sharp senses were filled with the incredibly sweet fragrances of the countryside of Greece—the smell of grapes and jasmine mingled with the scents of roasting lamb and garlic and rosemary. It was a revelation that awakened something deeply joyful in the middle of my chest and spread a wash of light in my head. And then we were there, in Athens, Syntagma Square in August of 1969.

We naively had waltzed, as young Americans could, into a country that, with the tacit approval of the CIA and the American government, had been under the rule of a right-wing military junta since 1967. The huge photos of its appointed Prime Minister, Papadopoulos, dominated the square and were present everywhere. Back at home,  concentrated on the war in Vietnam, finishing our high-school years, we had no awareness of the iron rule of military law in this country rarely discussed in the news, the torture going on its jails, the exile of countless journalists and politicians and the repression of civil rights. Now it was jarring, somehow inexplicable in the context of this city both modern and ancient.

In Athens itself, what evidence existed of this horror was behind closed doors. The atmosphere in the streets seemed flowing and free. It was not until we travelled with our Greek friend to his hometown south of Athens that we began to feel the palpable pressure of repression.

In the heat of the full day, our friend led us through the huge square to one of the spreading streets leading away from the vast open space into the wide avenues of the city. On the ferry, he had told us of his plan to stay a couple of nights at–of all places–the YMCA of Athens. the safest and cleanest cheap place to stay. He asked us to join him. He had stayed there many times before on his way from the ferry to his family home in Glyfada.

He navigated us down the sidewalks of Stadiou Avenue, lined with tall white business buildings, and into another street that began to feel more contained–first-floor shop doors opening one after another into small groceries, restaurants, clothing shops, cafes partially filled with people. It was not a city of crowds, but yet had a sense of a vibrant humming of human life. We were tired and hungry. It was almost unbearably hot, well over a hundred degrees. The pavement oozed with the smells of concrete and asphalt and piss, the beautiful smell of roasting meat and garlic wafting from somewhere on the sides on every block.

One more turn and down the street. In front of us gleamed, in the hot sun of the late afternoon, a three or four story building with many windows, modern, lined at street level with white pillars–the Y. We checked in at a desk on the first floor and paid for four beds, two in a women’s room and two in a men’s.

My blond friend and I climbed the white wide stairs up to the big room where several beds were made up with simple coverlets and pillows. We seemed to have the place to ourselves. It was stifling hot, with a ceiling fan turning slowly and big windows facing out onto the air above the street, open on their sashes as far as they could go. Everything seemed to be white and spacious, the heat, the walls, the beds, the sounds of traffic and occasional shouting voices in the streets, horns, the pulsing ambulance sound of European cities. It felt like swimming in waves of heat, wanting badly to come up for air. We lay down on two of the small beds near a window in this sauna of white light and sweated into a drowsy state and then sleep.

We may have slept on and off until a hot morning light seeped into our confused washed-out heat dreams. We dressed and went downstairs to the cavernous cafeteria. Our two friends were already sitting at a table with bowls and plates of food spread in front of them. Our curly headed Greek/English friend, Ion, playing host in this country of half of his DNA, came over to show us how to order. There were ceramic pots of white yogurt with a skim of yellowish cream on top, figs, grapes, white bread in hefty slices, pats of butter, honey in a pot to drizzle by the spoonful on the warm bread, and cups of hot Turkish coffee. The yogurt was the creamiest, smoothest, most deliciously tangy sweetness I have tasted in this life. We ate well, enjoying the bounty of cheap fresh food, chatting about plans.

We were only there for a day and another night. We chose to go directly to the Parthenon.

As we walked out the front door onto the street, the force of the heat hit with all its weight. Though still fairly early in the day, the newspaper vendor where Ion stopped for a copy of the English language newspaper told him that the thermometer had already hit 43 degrees Celsius. As we had travelled across Southern France and then Italy, I had begun to shift my sense of the relative temperature scale and now could gage that anything over 32 was really uncomfortable. This was already orders of magnitude above that tipping point.

We walked along wide avenues and then down more winding streets, older, more packed-in, the huge rock of the Acropolis topped by the graceful columns of the Parthenon always within view, always a presence, the orientation point of the universe of this strange jumble of a city, messier and more complex as it approached that nexus.

We wandered, stopping to look at vendors’ stalls, talking as we walked about our trip to Ion’s hometown on the coast the next day. I was young. I remember little of the heat’s oppression, but I do see the steps up the side of the huge rock cliffs as we began our climb to the Acropolis, the height stretching upwards, Ion translating the remarks of a Greek family, also climbing, that the thermometer had reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  On another day, a climb that would have meant little to bodies still unaccustomed to limits now felt almost insurmountable under the burden of the sun’s fire.

But here we were at last at the feet of the Parthenon. Breathless with the climb, we stopped for long moments to adjust our senses to the vastness of this spreading plaza, seemingly littered with huge boulders, broken columns and monumental marble buildings, partially in ruins. The sense of ancient beauty, ancient poetry, was like a fragrance of light incense over everything, wafting up and disappearing in a miasma in the burning heat. The etheric beauty of yesterday’s trip over the deep blues of the sea, the islands purple as we watched them glide by, still present like a refreshing taste on the tongue, offset the heat and the enormity of the climb upwards, even in its subtlety. 

It seems to me that the same self that I can touch now was stirring deep inside, gathering itself still, soaking in through skin dripping with sweat the experiences swirling around it, rather astonished as always to be there, as to be anywhere on earth.

As we had climbed, the image of the Parthenon floating somewhere behind my eyes was a presence well before we emerged at the top of the hill, a plane of rocks, columns and carved human forms. As we took the last steps, it felt as if we were emerging from a dark sea into the air above. That climb, that emerging from a place of rough, heated rocks and sweaty effort to a level place with stretching vista has echoed in my dreams, transforming over time.

And then there it was, huge, spreading in the near distance before us, a perfect rectangle somehow still despite what had fallen or crumbled from its remains. A symmetry of suggested space, looming there against the bright blue sky, it existed in a place in time and space that was mysteriously part of a continuity of the universe within, vast, containing now the turquoise sea, the fragrances of jasmine and grape, the sounds of waves, the smells of a classroom now in some time past, the call of the voices of strangers, the pricks of light in the ink of night.

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A Window in Time (Part 4): Race Across Italy

 

We moved up the road a bit to be out of the crowd of people trying to find a ride over the border into Italy. The weather I remember was that perfect temperature of the Mediterranean at the height of summer, the light the perfect light of the coast, bright yet full of contrast. We were content to just lean against a guardrail and wait. I was the one to stick out my thumb at the roadside, a young blond woman in shorts.

It may have been hours. It may have been minutes. A medium sized truck stopped and motioned for us to climb in. We gathered our things quickly and jumped into the back which was all packed with sacks. As we started through the border, I could see the Italian Carabinieri standing in groups on the other side with their high brimmed hats, dark blue uniforms and white bandoliers across their chests. They looked distinctly threatening, like holdovers from Fascist times. I braced for barks of authority as we reached the customs booth. But all went well. We jumped down off the end of the truck and presented our passports. They were duly stamped by officials who smiled and said “American, ha!” as they looked from my face to the passport. We climbed back in, Michel waving to a group of Carabinieri as we passed. They smiled. He said, “They actually look friendly!” “We’ll see.” I said.

The next two or three days are a blur in my mind’s eye. We must have taken the faster autoroute, the A-10 up away from the coast, bypassing around mountain towns. I remember only miles and miles of hills full of dark trees, small fields up against grape vineyards, and small towns with red-tiled-roofed houses in what must have been Liguria. And then into the region of olive groves, through to Bologna. Somewhere along the way that first day we got a ride with a truck carrying local table grapes to market. The drivers let us sit in back with the roll-up door open and motioned with hand gestures for us to eat all we wanted. We sat with our backs braced on crates of grapes, comfortably watching the scenery unwind behind us, eating grapes and throwing stems out the open back. I remember the fragrance of the grapes and washing our sticky hands with water from a big plastic bottle but nothing more.

We must have gotten stuck in Bologna for awhile, waiting for a ride on the outskirts of town. We never went into any of the cities we passed. There was no time. We had to make our rendezvous for the ferry in Bari in two more days. We ate what we had in our packs and snacks bought at wherever our rides happened to stop. There were long periods of waiting by the road. It is all a blur except for one night spent in a grape vineyard.

It must have been late evening when we stopped travelling, dropped off by the last ride of the day. We looked around in our darkening surroundings and saw we were on the edge of a large vineyard. The soil under the vines was smooth and inviting. The ground felt cool after the heat of the day. Tired out, we walked back into the rows out of sight of the road and spread our woollen bags under the vines.

The soil was soft and fluffy, a perfect place to stretch out in relative comfort. We had no consciousness of the probable toxic herbicides and fungicides we were breathing in the dust. Lulled to sleep by the surrounding silence and the new fragrance of ripening grapes, we slept soundly until morning light.

There is nothing else I remember of our journey across Italy, although there must have been some difficulties. Maybe it was just problems getting rides that stretched out the time, but we were late for our rendezvous in Bari. The day must have arrived when we were still at some distance down the A14. We must have been worried. Our friends might have bought tickets already for the ferry, counting on us to arrive as planned. If we were late, would they leave? I’m sure we doubted that, yet there would always have been some tiny element of uncertainty. Our mode of transportation meant we had no control over the speed of travel. I faintly remember some irritability between us as we stood by the side of the road for hours with cars passing us.

When we finally arrived in Bari, we were twelve hours late. My memory is filled only with the large concrete buildings around the ferry dock, large boats in the harbor. It was morning when we finally got out of our final ride, the morning after the departure of the ferry we’d planned to take. We found our friends rather quickly in the waiting area for the ferry. As soon as we spotted them, we ran across the hall calling to them and hugging as we met. There were apologies and stories of the days we’d spent apart. They were clearly also road-weary eyes, anxious glances, hair a bit uncombed. It must have seemed to all of us, standing there together, that we were looking into some strange mirror. When they had finally realized we were not arriving for the ferry the night before, they knew they must spend the night in Bari, but by that time there were no hotel rooms available. They had managed to stay in the small apartment of an odd man from Romania they’d met at the ferry terminal. They’d had been glad to make it safely through the night and out early in the morning.   As part of the tumbling stories, they told us that the next ferry for Greece wouldn’t leave for another few days. We would have to travel down the coast to Brindisi where a ferry left the next day for our destination, Patras, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea.

Michel, now torn with the prospect of going to Greece, decided he did, in fact, need to get back to Strasbourg and see his family for the rest of the summer. He had promised. He left us that day on a bus, hoping to see us once more in Paris at the end of our trip. It was never to be. That was the last we ever saw of him, waving goodbye from the window of the bus, standing in the aisle, tanned but with tired eyes, crouched over a woman in the seat.

Now it was just the three of us, standing there suddenly feeling a bit shy of each other, strangest for me to be alone with my friend and this man I had know for only a day or two. I remember the run into the ferry terminal from our last ride, bags flapping around our shoulders, the wait on the line of people boarding with bags of grapes, bottles of wine and suitcases, duffles and backpacks—families with several children, couples old and young, young Greek men returning home from some job abroad, jovial and rowdy, a few young Greek women with a grandmotherly looking figure with a shawl, a group of tourists, shepherded by a young woman speaking English—a whole crowd all flowing up onto the three deck ferry, heading out across the wine dark sea.

The wine-dark sea. The peace that passeth understanding. The passage to the land of myth, the land of heroes would be a long one. We wandered with the crowd looking for a place to sit and spread out our gear. There was a quick consensus that the top deck was the best place to be. From there we would see the sea and the islands as we steamed along and feel the fresh air in the possibly bumpy waters of the Ionian. We found a bench next to a big metal box full of life jackets and settled down as the huge ferry pulled away from the dock. From where we sat, we watched as the multicolored two and three-story stucco buildings moved by us, gleaming from the shore and we passed through the wakes of the tall-sailed blue, red and green yachts in the harbor out into the more open turquoise water.

 

There Is Nothing That I Know

Wind rocks the top of cedar tree
shivers its thin, dark feathers.
The warm damp smell of spring
as present in air as warmth can be
in cool wind’s weathers.
My bones are cold as only
some cold grief can bring.

There is nothing that I know.
Yet this is what I know.
At the beach today
I saw land slide
Abruptly down a cliffside
Poured from above by some unseen shift
Its roar erased by waves’ unceasing sift
of water against rock, a symphony with the wind.
Suddenly pooling earth as if just another drift
of waterfall.
Then done and as if it must
Just let one more rock come tumbling down
smug,
still, as if it had  just been a pile of dust
all along.

A twisted tree atop another sandstone cliff
with roots that hold it fast and stiff
above the open air.
Along the forest trail huge limbs of trees
Wounds gaping orange here and there
In some time past
were there above me with their papery leaves
still clinging when I walked here last.
It seemed they had been part of living tree,
suspended
against the pull of that firm gravity
gracefully from strong trunks.

I see in memory the big wind
I hear its howl
but in this here, this now
they never were but
logs, limbs spreadeagled
among the litter of leaves
and ginger sprouts and beetles.

There was an ache, a dull burning behind my eyes
from some night past when I remember worry
burned like biting flies
Even as they saw those things in some slight flurry
of what seemed to be the grey light
of late slanting afternoon
Tohee chirping, hawk in flight

Now a memory, gone.

Is it now, or was it then I felt the warmth
of those sweet patches of air
as choruses of song
that seemed to carry messages of spring.
Is it now or was it then
My thoughts rise on some cold wing
Chill and bare.

What I know is that big things
are always changing in the wings
Of time.
Moving imperceptibly towards some shift
Mountains buried in the drift
of sand in winds
Rocks perched on cliffs while cities come and go
tumble from the years of snow
pressing in their cracks.
And become a hidden hill in some forest below.
While the smallest things forever in and around
find some quiet movement in the ground.

What I cannot see is the movement of these
smallest things
The stir of atoms of the air, dust of star and strings
of dancing proteins in each cell
Light that glimmers as if  at the ringing of some clear bell
in their shift from state to state

I know nothing of the great.
This is all I can know
Cedar shivers when wild winds blow
Earth roars swiftly down the cliff
Then is quiet as a drift
in streams of time.

There is nothing
That I know

Yet this I know.

 

 

The First Day on the Road

 

From a motel in America

 

Traveling in our own country

in that edge of time

between autumn and winter

The few tenacious trees that

still cling to vibrant songs of red

so joyous in defiant singing

in the concert of grey, brown and dark green

that has begun.

 

Not like the holiday travels

in warmth and sunshine

we wake to darkness and drive

until well after darkness comes again

shivering inside to think

of working in the cold of night

to create some little home

to shelter sleep.

 

This first night instead

tired and full of the sickness

stretching around the globe

like a fungus

we find a motel by the road

and feel the comfort

of a bed and sheets and

nice soap

as if travellers from

a place of tents

and beds on hard ground.

A Window in Time (Part 2): To Lyon

We left together that morning, the three of us, Michel, my blond friend and I.  I remember ( although other details are gone) I had a rough khaki pack I had bought at the Puces in Paris along with the French Army surplus greenish-grey wool blanket roll I carried with me. I must not have brought much with me to France since I seem to remember carrying it all easily, along with the thick French translation of Faulkner’s “Light in August” I’d bought on a whim in one of the stalls on the Seine to see how southern America venacular translated into French.

We hitched a ride, if I remember, with a friend of Michel’s, southwest out of Paris on the A-10 toward Orsay. We must have had a ride out of Paris that morning since I have no memory of sticking out our thumbs in the middle of Paris. We were bound on an adventure to the south of France before Michel had to return to see his parents in Strasbourg at the end of the summer. Our tickets home from Paris in September left us plenty of time to escape the skeins of our parents’ concern in a time when the only communication back home was through American Express offices. What they didn’t know wouldn’t worry them. They would think we were busy in Paris or taking train rides together to places like Chartres. Dreams of my mother pulling up behind us on the road in her white convertible with the red interior pursued me for the first week and then faded into the background of our grand adventure.

By nightfall of the first day, we must have made it to Orleans or some small town nearby it on the Loire. We camped somewhere on a grassy verge of the rocky river bank, stretched out under a cloudy sky, grateful for the warmth of summer in our woolen sacks with rough sheet linings. We listened to the river and talked of the nearby chateaus we would never see, just as we had stood beneath the Eiffel Tower together, marvelling at the huge black iron girders, counting our sous and imagining the trip to the top. We saw nothing of the town that morning but stuck out our thumbs after eating bread and cheese from our packs.

Since the three of us had to stick together, hitching was slow. Drivers were not at all reluctant to pick up people along the roads, but most were pairs of women, single men or male and female couples. To “faire du stop” was an accepted way for people to travel, especially through the countryside, but cars were small and three at a time was hard to get. We took to having my friend and I stick our thumbs out by the roadside while Michel sat back somewhere slightly out of view.

We got a few short rides that day and made it to somewhere in the central rural farmlands. It was probably somewhere in the area of what is now the Department de Cher. It was getting quite late. Twilight had set in. It was likely our last ride had been in a truck that took us on a rather circuitous route. We found ourselves walking in the countryside where stands of trees still grew and inviting grassy spots under cover of trees clustered here and there beside a stream that ran behind the farmhouses. We were hungry and starting to feel more than a little tired and footsore. The shoes I’d brought with me had given me blisters and I had taken to walking barefoot when I could. The heat of the day had cooled enough to make the pavement tolerable but my legs ached. All we wanted was a spot to bed down safely for the night and a bit of seclusion. If I remember, we were somewhere near the towns of Theilley or Vierzon in the region of Cher. I will never know for certain.

Michel said he would go ahead a bit to check things out and find us a good spot to camp. In a few minutes, he came running back to join us.

“There’s a farmhouse and a barn just up there. I think we can find a spot there. There are lots of trees and a stream. I know the kind of people around here. They’re farm people like from my region. They’re okay about sleeping in barns.”

We walked together around the bend. By now it was fairly dark. Nightbirds called from the trees. He pointed to the little house just ahead to our right along the road. Quietly, we came up to the drive and stood together, looking for a dark opening somewhere in the trees. He motioned for us to follow him and whispered,

“Follow me”.

Behind him, my friend and I crossed a grassy yard only partially concealed by bushes from the front door of the little house. A ladder leading to an upper hay door was built into the side of the small barn. We watched Michel mount it and climb quickly up through the square opening. He turned and motioned for us to come up.

We ran the rest of the small distance and followed him up as quietly as we could through the door and into a loft strewn with hay. Hay bales we stacked on the far side in step-like fashion. We paused for a moment, watching Michel looking around for the best spot, feeling worried about what the farmer would do if he found us here.

“Are you sure this will be okay?” my friend asked.

“I’m sure!” he said. “People do it all the time in the country.”

Still feeling a bit like criminals, we helped him find a nice spot surrounded by bales and together, pulled hay from the floor and made a big luxurious bed for the three of us. We spread out our bedrolls and chose comfortable seats on the bales. Michel opened his pack and pulled out the bottle of wine he’d bought that morning. Bread, cheese, sausage and wine and maybe a cucumber or two we’d brought from the last epicerie we’d passed—each of us pulled some contribution from our pack. We drank from the bottle and feasted. Michel sang a song from Alsace with a little more gusto than we thought was prudent. To quiet him down, we tried to get him to teach us to sing it. We felt gay in this extravagant accommodation and somehow secure. After a while, we stretched out in our bags, sidling up to each other like puppies, talked softly until we were yawning and drifted finally into to a very peaceful sleep.

The sun took a while to reach us. When my friend and I finally opened our eyes, we discovered Michel was gone. We had a few moments of panic, quickly straightening out our hair and cleaning up the things left from dinner, thinking he had taken off in the night and left. In our flurry, it took a moment to notice that his head had appeared in the opening.

“I thought you’d never see me, you cabbages! Come on. Get up!” he said. “Bring your things. The farmer’s wife has breakfast for us. Don’t keep her waiting!”

We pulled on our packs, fastening them as we went, and followed him down the ladder.

At the bottom, a woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a long soft cotton dress of muted colors tied around the waist, stood with her hands softly clasped in front of her, following our progress down with her eyes. She spoke to Michel in an accent hard for us to follow. We looked at him with eyebrows raised in question. He interpreted for us, with a slight smile. “She wants us to come into the kitchen so we can tell her what we want. She has different flavors of fruit syrup for our water and she wants to know what you like.”

As we followed them towards the front door of the house, I noticed a tray laid out on a small metal table next to the stone path. There was a bowl of brown eggs, sausage, small misshapen peaches and a bowl of blackberries. Spoons and bowls were stacked on the other side of the wooden tray with a bottle of milk, ready for our breakfast.

Inside the kitchen was small and lined with shelves holding jars, boxes, glasses, plates and bowls. Near the rough sink was a line of bottles with spouts holding liquids of vivid purple, red and brownish yellow. She explained the different flavors to us, all homemade—cassis, blackberry, cherry and plum is what I remember.

She handed us each a glass and poured a bit of our chosen syrup in the bottom of each. She motioned for us to fill the glass with water from the pump at the sink and then told us to come with her out the door. She handed Michel what looked like a tablecloth which he put over his arm. She picked up the tray and led us down a path into the trees near a stream. Michel spread out the cloth on the grass and the three of us sat down together. She carefully placed the tray on the grass next to us and told us that the eggs were fresh from her hens and boiled. There was a homemade loaf of bread and a jar of jam. We motioned for her to join us and she shook her head.

“J’ai encore manger. Bon appetite!” she said and turned and went back to the house.

I watched her go down the path, crossing through the shadows made by the morning sun. I still see her in my mind’s eye.

My friend and I looked at each other with delight. Michel was more blasé.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it. This is what we do in the countryside.”

We sat together, leisurely eating until we had consumed every crumb and talking comfortably about the road ahead. The interweaving of French and occasional English was now familiar. I remember how my friend and I, after feeling the isolation of inadequacy, had now begun to feel a re-emergence of our familiar selves, able to communicate more of the subtleties of our thought. I remember my delight when I began dreaming in French and then when I was able to understand some threads of the quips that passed from one person to another with the speed only the French seem to possess.

Filled with the beauty of the countryside and the various tastes of the food on our tongues, we stacked things on the tray and followed the path through the bushes back to the farmhouse. The woman was doing something in the yard and came to us when she saw us approach. She took the tray and firmly refused our efforts to help her clean up. We followed her into the kitchen where she and Michel compared notes about life on a farm, brief phrases intelligible through the thick argot. My friend and I asked about the various things we saw around the kitchen in jars and bottles, curious to find out more about the life of this woman here in her little house. She explained each one, Michel trying to find ways to explain the names that seemed unfamiliar.

 

It was almost noon when we finally waved goodbye and set off back to the main road with more boiled eggs, cheese and bread stored away in our packs.

After such lavish accommodation, it was natural that the day that followed would have to be one of the more challenging. Car after car passed us by on the autoroute. Trucks whizzed by. We made it from one village to the next small town in the Centre-val-de-Loire.

Our next ride took us a short way to a turn off to a farm. We walked for a while on the highway as the afternoon turned toward evening and the light began to really fade. It had been raining on and off all day and now it was cooling. Cars were speeding by, on the way home with no thought of stopping to pick someone up. We realized we had to find a place to get off the road and bed down. But where? As with some American roads, there were fences along the roadside and fields beyond with no cover.

Up ahead a kilometer or so, we could see the lanes part to start a divided four-lane highway. There at the division was a patch of grass with a few trees. We walked along down the right side until we were close. Waiting for a time when there we no oncoming cars that could see us, we dashed across the two lanes to the island, ducking behind the bushes we’d seen from a distance. An empty bottle and a few wrappers indicated that we weren’t the first to think this was a decent spot to camp.

We spent a cold and noisy night on the grass and gravel, making sure that the first to wake up woke the others. Just before dawn, we rolled up our bags, changed into dry shirts and ran over to the other side of the highway.

As the morning dawned, it was clear that things would go better. The first car didn’t take us far, but it took us to a small village square where the cafe was just beginning to open. We waited for awhile on a bench while the man who swept the streets did his job and the cafe owner rolled up his metal door, put out the round metal Richard ashtrays on the tables and put out the chairs that had been stacked for the night. As soon as he was ready, we crossed the cobbled square and went in to order our cafe au lait and baguettes with butter. Satisfied, we went back out to the road and once again, stuck out our thumbs.

The next car that stopped was a nice little dark blue Renault with a young couple. They let us pack into the back with our bags with no fuss. As we drove off, we were already chatting about our trip, where we came from and where we were headed. They lived close by and were out on an excursion to the market and lunch, but it was “le weekend” and they were up for anything. They asked us if we had time to see something in the countryside, a bit of the beaten track. They promised to take us there, have lunch with us and then drive us to the turnoff to Lyon at Clermont-Ferrand. They had friends there and would have a drink with them that evening.

Of course, we had time! Chattering as we went, Michel helping us to understand some of the quips and jokes, they turned off the highway onto the two-lane secondary roads. After some time driving through pleasant countryside full of the vistas of fields and roads lined with Plane trees, coming through village after village, they turned off the road onto the grounds of a small ancient stone church.

“This is what we wanted to show you,” they told us as they stopped the car. We piled out.

“It’s one of the oldest existing churches in France. The original monastery was built in the ninth century. There are catacombs under the church. Come, we’ll show you. It’s wonderful.”

As we approached the entrance made in the ancient way with arching mortared stones, I remember the sense of enchantment that we would be led to such a place where clearly very few tourists ever came. They lead us through the cool echoing nave with a few rows of wooden benches. I remember only a simple altar in the transept and stain glass window of a simple figure of Christ behind it in the small rounded choir. They went ahead of us to the side of the transept, opening a small door. As we followed them, we could see stone steps curving downward. We climbed down the spiralling stairs to a stone area below.

There, with the only light from a few bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, we saw the rock partitions that once formed some part of the walls of monks’ cells. We wandered through the whole underground warren which seemed to extend out behind the actual walls of the church above. The couple explained this had been the original monastery, built in the Ninth Century. In that beginning time, there had been a small Romanesque chapel above. The church had been expanded and rebuilt in the Twelfth Century. Renovations had begun and then stopped in some more recent time. Now without a congregation, it was maintained somehow by local people and government funds.

We stood there for some time, each in separate spots in that enclosed space. Clearly, our thoughts were given wings by the place. There was something in the confined air, the cool stone that provided me a peaceful, pervasive sense of the centuries of meditation, the endless hours of chanting that had reverberated here and in the church above. It seeped in through my skin into my bones, sending a shiver through my spine.

We left quietly, with a reverence for a place of worship neither my friend nor I had absorbed growing up with modern intellectual American parents. To this day, I don’t really know where we had gone or whether I could find that place again.

The couple drove us to a cafe in a village square in their little blue Renault. I’m sure we shared a carafe of local wine and some ham sandwiches on lengths of baguettes, but I have no real memory of that meal or of the rest of our time with them. They must have dropped us off as promised.

I think it was late that afternoon that a large car with a middle-aged man at the wheel stopped to pick us up. We climbed in with a bit of hesitation, exchanging glances, as he was a fairly large and burly guy who gave off a sense of authority and the habit of power. He was going to all the way to Marseilles and would drop us off when the road diverged to Cannes. A long way. Michel motioned for me and my friend to take the back seat as he went around to the front passenger seat, but the man said,

“You and your girlfriend can have the back,” and he motioned for me to sit in the front, next to him.

We drove and drove, taking occasional bathroom breaks at small gas stations. At a seeming truck stop somewhere before Lyon, late at night, he turned to me as we were headed back to the car and said, “You can drive, right? I’m tired. You drive now.” It was clearly stated more as an order than a request.

Fear immediately gripped me like a sickness in my stomach.  I had never driven a stick shift.  I’d never even driven in France. I had little experience driving in any unfamiliar terrain, let alone another country whose regulations I didn’t know. I had no international license.  When I tried to explain,  he simply brushed me off with a shrug and a little gesture toward the passenger door. 

“I’ll help you shift until you learn. You’ll figure out the rest,” he said.

Michel put his hand on the man’s shoulder and tried to pull him aside to talk but the man just turned away.

“I’ll drive,” Michel said.

“No,” answered the man, “I want her to drive. It’ll be good for her.”

The three of us managed quick glances back and forth and Michel whispered,

“I’ll stay awake. Don’t worry,” and opened the driver’s door for me.

The man got into the passenger seat and showed me the controls, running through the gear stick and how to shift with the clutch pedal.

“Now go ahead,” he said, “Start ‘er up and I’ll help you shift to get on the road. Once you get going, you can stay in fourth for a while.”

I turned the key and put my foot on the clutch as he instructed. With his hand on the gear shift, he instructed me about when to depress the clutch and when to release. As we lurched forward he yelled,

“Gently up on that pedal! Feel it engage!”

Once we were on the two-lane highway, he sat back in his seat and said, “When we’re approaching a town, let me know. I’ll help you.”

He must have dozed for a while. I felt Michel’s hand on my shoulder even so often as he whispered,

“D’accord?”

My friend slept next to him in the back, waking when Michel leaned forward. Stiff with anxiety, my brain on constant alert, I managed to gauge my speed, feeling very lucky that our car was almost alone on the road.

Signs began to tell me that we were approaching Lyon. I could see the yellow of the sodium street lights in lines near the horizon, reaching inwards towards in other in the distance like a study in perspective. I said,

“We’re coming to Lyon.”

The man woke and stretched, his arm muscles evident, yawning loudly. He said,

“Slow down a little. I’ll tell you when to put in the clutch and when to shift.”

I suddenly felt his big hand on my thigh. “I’ll guide you,” he said.

As we approached Lyon I was almost frozen with fear. His hand was creeping further towards my crotch, gently massaging. I tried to pull my right leg over towards my left, making it harder for him to reach. It did no good. His hand just followed. My mind, half concentrated on navigating through stop lights, traffic signs and instructions from the man to do things like turn off the headlights through town, and half on keeping him from groping further without infuriating him, we somehow made it through the city. Now I was really worried. His hand was still there. What would be his next move? Would he make me stop the car and get out? I seemed to remember that at some point he had mentioned a knife he kept somewhere in the car, maybe the glove box.

After leaving behind the lights of the city, he suddenly said,

“I have to pee. Turn into this next station.”

I slowed the car and turned in to a parking lot, his hand alternately helping me with the gear shift and going back to its anchor on my leg. We came to a stop and he opened his door and got out. Thinking he would go towards the building, I was appalled to see him going around the front of the car, clearly headed towards my door. Panicked, I tried to sidle over to the passenger seat. As I tried to manoeuvre, I caught a glimpse of Michel opening his door behind me and lurching out of the car. He stood in front of the man, blocking him from reaching for my door. He put turned to me through the partially opened window and said,

“Go. Get out!”

My friend in the back seat was opening her door as I made it to the other side, opened the door and slid out.

My friend and I looked around wildly to see where we were. Over to the side of the parking lot was a group of men, standing around talking and smoking. A couple of tractor trailers were parked near them in the lot. In the blur of the next minutes, there is a haze in my memory, but it is likely that Michel, having lived in the rough section of Paris, was used to carrying a knife and used it to keep the man where he was near the car. He was suddenly with us, pushing us towards the group of men, putting one of us on each side of him, his arms coming up around our shoulders. As we came up on the men, Michel glancing behind him, he said,

“Who can give us a ride south? There’s a little money in it.”

Them men looked at each other, one looking down, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out on the pavement.

“I’ll take you. How much?” he said.

Money changed hands. The driver motioned for one more bill.  Michel peeled it off  and arms still around us, said,

“Which one?”

and pulled us quickly over to the cab the driver had indicated. He boosted us up the high step. The driver motioned us through the door and opened the curtain behind the seat to show us the bed behind.

“You can ride in there,” he told us.

The driver’s partner climbed up into the other side, we got through into the little loft behind the cab and the driver got in, pulled the curtain closed and started the big engine. Michel parted the curtain as we began to pull away, looking into the lot.

“He’s still there, standing by the car,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll try to follow.”

“God! That was too close!” said my friend.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes. Too close.”

 My heart pumped wildly in my chest as if feeling a rushing thaw after being frozen in my chest for hours. Michel pulled out a bottle of wine from his pack, opened it and we passed it around until it was gone. The driver’s partner handed us back some packets of nuts and we began to relax. I think we laughed together at Michel’s gallantry, I hugging him around the shoulders in relief. Michel leaned over to the driver and asked how many hours to Cannes. Since it was quite a few and he was going all the way, we stretched out on the bed and dozed off, the driver’s partner snoring in the front seat.

(To be continued..  More about the journey to Greece in the time of Joanie)